Expert Witness Example: Surgical “Never Event”

The Expert Institute recently shared another example of an “answer” provided by an expert in a medical malpractice case. The short synopsis offers a helpful way to understand some basic principles applicable to these cases generally. It also provides some insight into one type of medical mistake at the heart of the same–an egregious surgical error.

In the example, a former patient sued his surgeon who performed a colectomy. This is a procedure where part of the colon is removed. The 35-year old patient in this case had “ulcerative colitis” (UC). UC is an inflammatory bowel disease that can cause diarrhea and blood in the stool. It is a serious condition that requires a steady dose of medications and, at times, surgery. In this case the man was having a colectomy (partial removal of the large bowel) on his left side instead of a proctocolectomy (total removal of that bowel).

In this man’s case, he had the surgery, but it did not seem to cure the symptoms as expected. Even months after the operation he had pain in his abdomen, bloody stool, and more. He went back to the doctor and more tests were run. Eventually, it was discovered that the tissue that had been taken out in the surgery was normal. The wrong part of the colon had been removed–it was the right side that was taken out in the surgery. The UC was in the left side.

Obviously performing a “wrong-site” surgery is an egregious mistake. It usually falls within the category of “never events” — medical errors that are so obvious there is simply no excuse for their occurrence. The man in this case filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the involved parties for the mistake.

As virtually always happens in med mal cases, an expert witness was consulted to explain the error and provide information on what steps could have prevented the mistake. In particular the example provides the answer that the expert witness provided to the following question: In what ways could this occurrence have been prevented, and what is the standard of care in these types of situations?

The doctor-witness explained that in all surgeries an elementary step is marking the correct side of the body. That marking needs to be confirmed by all members of the surgical team. Considering the consequences on making this elementary error, it is incumbent that this step be following every time. This marking procedures usually involves physical identification with a pen on the patient’s body. The boldness of the marking is a testament to the importance of not messing up in this regard. Verification of the marking should be made in conjunction with the patient’s medical chart. Any confusion or misunderstanding should cause the procedure to be halted until all are satisfied that the correct process is being followed.

If you or a loved one was affected by a surgical mistake or any form of “never event” be sure to contact a medical malpractice attorney as soon as feasible. Timing matters in these cases, so do not delay.

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